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01 October, 2014

THE SAD STORY OF CANADA'S GREAT WHITE HOPE, ARTHUR PELKEY



Arthur Pelkey and Luther McCarty square off in fateful Calgary boxing match.
"Calgary's new Manchester arena was packed to the rafters with fight fans, the air thick with hubbub and cigar smoke as the city basked in the spotlight of the boxing world. No one was more excited than promoter Tommy Burns, the famous former world champ who had moved to Calgary in 1910. Here was the slugfest he knew would put the city on the map: Canadian brawler Arthur Pelkey versus Luther McCarty, a handsome, fleet-fisted Nebraska boy touted as the next "Great White Hope". Spectators and sports writers travelled from near and far to attend. A $10,000 purse and a potential title shot were on the line.

What happened in the ring the afternoon of May 24, 1913, would indeed change fortunes, but not as expected." -- The Calgary Herald

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My father was a boxing aficionado and he talked often about his admiration of Jack Dempsey who wore the world heavyweight crown for an extended period in the 1920's. He also told me about the tragic story of another boxer of his acquaintance who preceded Dempsey on the world boxing stage by a few years.

Arthur Pelkey (27 October 1884 – 18 February 1921) was a Canadian boxer who fought from 1910 to 1920. Born Andrew Arthur Pelletier, it is difficult to determine the actual birthplace for this amazing athlete. Some records list him as a Chatham, Ontario, native while others have him being born in nearby Pain Court. Adding to the confusion is the fact that a Chatham Sports Hall of Fame tribute clearly shows his hometown as being Dresden, the place of birth for both my father and I. While I do not remember my dad actually ever saying where Pelkey was born, my research suggests that it was in fact Pain Court, a largely French Canadian community in Kent County, like Dresden, not far from Chatham.
Arthur Pelkey

Somehow, my father who was about eight years younger, knew that as a teenager Pelkey moved from his Kent County home to the United States where he went to work in a cotton mill. He apparently started boxing to supplement his meagre earnings from the mill.

Nevertheless, at 6′ 1½″ and between 206 and 210 pounds, and after a series of local bouts, the hard-punching and durable Pelkey fought in the heavyweight division. He was one of the "White Hopes" of a period when African American Jack Johnson was the world heavyweight champion.

The height of Pelkey's pro career and its nadir happened simultaneously when on 24 May 1913, he met Luther "Cowboy" McCarty at Tommy Burns's Manchester Arena in Calgary, Alberta, with McCarty's World White Heavyweight title at stake. Tommy Burns had been the world heavyweight champ who had lost his title to Jack Johnson, and the title had been created to crown a white heavyweight champ in light of the failures of successive White Hopes to wrest the title from Johnson. Before he retired from the ring, Burns met Pelkey in a match that ended in a draw and was so impressed with him that he became his manager and arranged for what amounted to an exhibition bout with McCarty as a warm up for an ultimate encounter with the American Johnson.

Approximately, two minutes into the first round of the scheduled 10-round bout, Pekley kayoed McCarty with what appeared to be a glancing blow to the chest. Eight minutes later, still laying on the ring's canvas, McCarty was pronounced dead. Pelkey reportedly broke down and wept when told of McCarty's death. Manchester Arena, actually built by Tommy Burns himself, burned down the following day, likely as a result of arson in protest of the fight.

Four days after the controversial fight, professional boxing was officially banned in Alberta. Pelkey and Burns were charged with manslaughter, but the charges were later dropped. A coronor's jury eventually ruled that McCarty’s death was determined to have been from a brain hemorrhage, probably brought on by a fall off his horse a few days before. While they were exonerated, the lives of Pelkey and Burns were changed forever. Burns left Calgary and became an evangelist preacher. Legal troubles from the incident bankrupted Pelkey. He kept fighting, but only for the money, and he didn’t win much after that. Some suspected he was pulling his punches.

What began as a sensational exhibition ended in tragedy. A 21-year-old rising star was dead, a legend’s reputation was once again tarnished, a top notch contender was ruined, and Luther McCarty’s untimely end delivered a death blow to professional boxing in Calgary.

Pelkey reportedly was never the same after the McCarty incident. He lost the white heavyweight title to Gunboat Smith on New Year's Day 1914 at Coffroth's Arena in Daly City, California, via a T.K.O. in the 15th round of the scheduled 20-round bout.

When he retired in 1920, he had compiled an official career record of 22 wins (17 by K.O.) against 21 losses (having been kayoed 16 times) and three draws. He also had 10 *newspaper decisions: five wins, two losses and three draws.
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(*) A "newspaper decision" was a decision in professional boxing rendered by a consensus of sportswriters attending a bout after a no decision bout had ended. A "no decision" bout occurred when, either under the aegis of state boxing law or by an arrangement between the fighters, both boxers were still standing at the end of a fight and there had been no knockout, no official decision had been made, and neither boxer was declared the winner. The newspaper reporters covering the fight, after reaching a consensus, would declare a winner and print the newspaper decision in their publications. Officially, however, a "no decision" bout resulted in neither boxer winning or losing.
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Arthur Pelkey eventually became a police officer in Windsor and died of "sleeping sickness" (a form of encephalitis) at 38 years of age in 1921.

NOTE: On April 5, 1915, the remarkable Jack Johnson finally lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy from Kansas who started boxing when he was 27 years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round of the scheduled 45 round fight. Johnson, although having won almost every round, began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Willard would ultimately lose his title to my dad's hero Jack Dempsey on the 4th of July, 1919, in one of the most lopsided championship fights on record.

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